Flowers, Food and Feathers

By:  Priscilla Hayes

At the end of last year, the first grade teachers at Littlebrook School started planning a bird garden as a service learning project for their classes with design ideas from Littlebrook’s fabulous art teacher. We are converting an existing bed which already contains plants that support birds, so the kids will be drawing plans to add additional bird-friendly plants from a pre-selected list.

Creating a successful bird garden is more than just adding plants—it’s learning to look at both the existing and new plants from a bird’s point of view. I am learning that this requires unlearning or rethinking some things that have become almost second nature to me as a gardener.

One of those things to reconsider is deadheading—removing the spent flower heads after the blooming period is over. If you do that, you also remove the developing seeds that can provide food for birds. I am suggesting that you should consider discontinuing deadheading for birdseed plants. Just a few examples of the many plants which produce seeds that birds can eat over the fall and winter are:

Perennials
• Rudbeckia
• Echinacea/coneflower
• Joe pye weed—per CREP publication, the seed is an angular nutlet providing food to songbirds; look for chickadees, wrens, titmice and juncos; the fluff is used for building warm nests.
• Goldenrod—benefits songbirds; birds eat seeds; insects use it to overwinter, so birds can eat the insects, also.
• Tickseed
• Sedum—all sedum varieties popular with pretty much all types of seed eaters.
• Asters—provide seeds.
• Globe thistle—especially popular with goldfinches; not an aggressive plant.

Annuals
• Zinnia
• Nasturtium
• Marigold
• Bachelor button
• Coreopsis
• Tithonia/Mexican sunflower
• Sunflowers
• Purple majesty millet

My research also showed that some weeds, notably smartweed, produce a large amount of seeds per plant, attracting red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, sparrows and others. While I am not really advocating planting smartweed, I have a collection of seeds as they become ripe on the turnpike overpass where we bike in mind. I figure that I can move the ripe seeds to a bird feeder, since it is unlikely that they will get eaten on that hot, noisy, open overpass.

But not every bird eats seeds. If you begin to study the shapes of birds’ beaks, you will begin to see that some birds have the right beaks to eat seeds, and others have beaks that are appropriate for collecting and eating something from the animal kingdom (of course, some things eat both plant and animal things, as we do). Insects and other small crawlies are among these foods, so another important change in gardening habits is to learn to tolerate some level of insects chomping away on garden plants. Many of these things, including caterpillars, are foods for birds we want to see. In fact, the presence or absence of enough of these may help determine how many eggs are laid and how many young birds can be successfully raised by adult birds nesting in a given area.

This has proved more slippery to embrace than the no-deadheading protocol change. We are wondering if the reason we aren’t seeing many of the Black Swallowtail caterpillars this year is because we have a bird population that is too efficiently picking them off and eating them. We really do like Black Swallowtails—they are one of two butterflies especially studied by the second graders, and we don’t mind sharing our parsley and fennel with their caterpillars. On the other hand, no birds seem to be eating the cabbage worms we are seeing on our collards. Are Black Swallowtail caterpillars the caterpillar of choice for birds with discriminating palates? We have taken to squishing the cabbage worms (and drowning Japanese beetles) since nothing is eating these for us. Figuring out how to provide insect food for birds is going to be a real learning process for us humans at Littlebrook School.

As I was introducing the fifth graders to their Freedom Garden (instead of a bird garden) for this year, the teacher I was working with pointed out an adult male and a juvenile goldfinch eating coneflower/Echinacea seeds in one of our pollinator borders. With her impressive birding skills, she could tell that the youngster was trying to get the adult to feed it, and the adult was saying the youngster was old enough to feed itself. I was reminded of how much I still have to learn about the natural world, but at the same time, a mystery was solved for me. Last year I collected Echinacea seedheads with the second graders from that very border and we seemed to come up with almost no seeds or fully pollinated, viable seeds from the seedheads. The finches in the courtyard explain why—they had already picked out most of the seeds before we even got to the seedheads.

I love my job for all of these constant little insights every day, and even just the gift of noticing things, like goldfinches, that were there all along.

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